Saturday, March 17, 2018

True Authoritarian Moves

Last week's firings were nothing compared to this.  The firing of Andrew McCabe from the FBI on Friday night was a true authoritarian move.  A review process that normally takes a year or more was rushed through in days, primarily it seems to deny McCabe his pension.  He had already given up his position, and he was on leave until the moment he could retire with full pension, which was twenty-six hours away at the time he was fired.

So to the usual bullying and thugery there is added vengeance and attempted intimidation.  A message presumably for anyone else who dared to cross the antipresident, the Homegrown Hitler in the making.

Obviously the antipresident and his craven minions are attacking the legitimacy of the FBI and special prosecutor Robert Mueller.  While attempting to intimidate anyone in Washington who doesn't fall in line, it seems designed to feed the political frenzy of the extreme right.

What is the end game?  The most immediately goal is to escape the consequences of various criminal acts by the antipresident and his family members.  With that out of the way, and with the ongoing purge of the federal government, and intimidation of Congress, the authoritarian presidency can truly begin.

What is the next move?  Jonathan Chiat is among those who remain convinced that it's firing Mueller and shutting down his investigations.  Another possibility is that the antipresident will issue preemptive pardons for himself and his family members now being investigated.   Having beaten the drum of calling the FBI and this investigation politically biased and out to get him, he can justify these pardons as justice.

Then after either (or both) of those, precipitating crisis in the world would be a big enough distraction, and war would be even better since it always consolidates the leader's power.  It's a series of huge risks, but the antipresident seems in the mood for them.  Only he and maybe Mueller know how close to nothing he has to lose by risking the country and the world.

Last week's firings were center ring shows in the tragic circus we're getting way too used to.  The House Republican "intelligence" committee report officially makes the Republican Party the equivalent of the Soviet Communist Party in the days of the Soviet Union: whatever the "chief executive" says is true, and has always been true.

But now the serious stuff involved in the Russia investigation is coming faster and faster, with McCabe free to go public, Comey's book coming out, and new revelations by the hour. And if Mueller sees what Chait does, there could be news from him soon, too.

Even an aspect of the investigations that seemed dormant (Cambridge Analytica and the targeting of voters) has exploded with two revelations, illegal harvesting of voter information and a very suspicious link to Russian meddling. The account of the oil company asking about targeting voters rather than customers is as chilling to read as the accounts of the 9/11 terrorists taking flying lessons, but no need to learn how to land.

Friday, March 16, 2018

The Time Machine.2: Traveller's Tale

“The man who cannot wonder is but a pair of spectacles behind which there is no eye.”
Thomas Carlyle

In an era attuned to the new, it blurted out its originality with a terse and daring title: The Time Machine.

There had been other tales of people traveling in time, but the means were mystical, accidental, inexplicable or unexplained. In the 1890s age of miraculous machines, this was the first widely read story to employ a device to take a character through time.

And with the telephone sending voices across space, the steamship and railroad moving bodies with unprecedented speed, and now the wonders of moving pictures and sound recording preserving the living past—why not a machine to transport someone to another time?

Yet as wondrous as such a machine would be, it would still be a machine—something solid and familiar.  A crucial quality of a machine is that it will do what it does repeatedly, for anyone who can operate it. It requires no special status or gift. So with a machine it becomes possible to imagine time travel as intentional, and accessible.

A new type of story was born with this novel: exploring not only other times but features of time itself—of time and causality paradoxes, timelines and loops. The Terminator, two of the most popular Star Trek feature films, and the long-running Doctor Who television series plus dozens of other stories that employ time travel technologies—all began with this one.

But being the first such story, there were no conventions of time travel that readers understood and accepted. A case had to be made, good enough to let the wonder take hold.

The Time Machine begins in the middle of a conversation. A group of upper middle class men are gathered after dinner in the comfortable London home of a scientist-inventor, who describes his theory of time as the fourth dimension, equal to the dimensions of space.

Speculations on a fourth dimension and what it might be were in the air in the late 19th century, as were debates over the nature of time. But these speculations were discussed among physicists and philosophers—this was a first presentation to the general reading public. (Einstein’s concept of the space-time continuum was still years in the future, though Wells’ story presages some features of it.)

This group of men has a few notable features. Three are identified only by profession: a Psychologist, a Medical Man and a Provincial Mayor. One is identified only by his name (Filby), one as the Very Young Man, and one—the narrator—is not yet identified at all. The inventor who is talking is called only—in the first words of the novel-- the Time Traveller (with the British double-l spelling.)

Why are the professional or important men not named? A necessary secrecy is perhaps implied, because of the controversial nature of the events to be described. There’s a subtle air of mystery. But it also creates an effect of these men as anonymous representatives of the reader.

These are sensible, upright and conventional men of their Victorian times. They like their host but seem to fear his unorthodox ways may lead him to do something rash, unseemly or disreputable, and taint them in the process.

So even in the relaxed context of after-dinner speculations they are skeptical. It’s notable as well that the group doesn’t include a physicist or philosopher more familiar with the ideas of the fourth dimension than the general reader, so their objections just sound stuffy.

Their host proposes that according to this theory, travel through time as well as space is possible. Moreover, he has invented a machine for that purpose.

He shows them a small model of it. He pushes a level forward, which he says will send the little machine into the future, or perhaps the past. It disappears. But his witnesses mostly don’t believe it. Several say it’s a trick.

It is a trick. The story employs a series of literary tricks to bring the reader along. For instance, the conversation is reported not by the Traveller directly, but by a guest, a so far anonymous but sympathetic witness and occasional participant. (His name, we learn later, is Hillyer.)

A singular story featuring a larger-than-life protagonist but reported by a witness is a frequent literary device, from Ismael in Moby Dick to Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby and beyond. These witness characters are also the reader’s representatives within the story.

Both Hillyer’s narrative voice and the nondescript dinner guests keep the conversation from becoming too technical. When the Traveller shows them the full-size time machine, Hillyer can report only a general impression of what it looks like, without a word concerning how it works.

But most people don’t much care how machines work—just that they do. The mystery of the time machine’s function is mirrored in its exotic appearance. It’s all just plausible enough to nudge the reader to suspend disbelief, at least long enough to follow the wonder forward.

The following week another group of men gather for dinner at the same place (Hillyer and the Medical Man are joined by a Journalist, an Editor and one or two others.) Hillyer arrives late, but the Traveller has not yet appeared. They begin dinner, joking about where their unconventional host may be—they even speculate he may be off committing crimes.

They are laughing over champagne when the door bursts open and the disheveled Traveller appears, dirty and bleeding. He has just returned from the future, and he is about to tell his tale.

von Humboldt in South America
That he is called the Traveller already conjures up familiar tales of voyages, from the adventures of Robinson Crusoe (or long before that, of Ulysses) to popular accounts of expeditions to China, Africa and the North Pole, including Humboldt’s explorations in South America that fascinated the young H.G. Wells. The traveler suffers travails (the words are directly related) but discovers astonishing new places.

Returning home and recounting his adventures to others is another familiar storytelling technique. Wells himself mentions Kipling and Robert Louis Stevenson as models, and this technique is also found in his contemporaries and friends, Henry James and James Conrad.

But there’s a fascinating difference (although something like it does occur in Conrad.) Though the story of his voyage is told in the Traveller’s voice, it is still being reported to us by Hillyer. We’ll eventually discover a plot reason for this, but in story terms it adds to the mystery. We’re being asked to believe that Hillyer remembers the Traveller’s words exactly.

However this is done so skillfully that the question may not even arise in the reader’s mind, at least until much later. For now, we are transported by the Traveller’s tale. be continued.  For earlier posts in this series, click the "Soul of the Future" label below.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Voices in the Land of Guns

Thousands of students at thousands of schools all over America left class at 10 this morning for a minimum of 17 minutes, one minute for each death by gunfire in Parkland last month.  Commemoration, protest, call for action--the first such coordinated event.

They join the family of activism.  They know the emotions that erupt in the event, the emotions that get focused for their cause. It's not dry politics--it's the head and the heart, it's the soul's statement.  Many will find that they pay a price for their commitment.  I honor them for what they did today.

The Joke's On Who?

New Yorker satirist Andy Borowitz is on a roll with this week's news:

Rex Tillerson: I Hope Trump Finds Out He’s Impeached on Twitter

Vladimir Putin Concedes Defeat in Pennsylvania Special Election

Trump installs former ‘Fox and Friends’ host as under secretary of state

Oh wait.  That last one isn't Borowitz.  It's the real news.

So maybe I shouldn't mention cable econ bullshitter Kudlow's appointment as chief White House economic advisor, who inspired such headlines Wednesday as:

Trump’s New Economic Adviser Lawrence Kudlow Has Been Wrong About Everything for Decades

Larry Kudlow may have been more wrong about the economy than anyone alive

Trump’s new economic adviser is really bad at economics. Here are the receipts.
Larry Kudlow has made some astoundingly bad predictions, even for a CNBC pundit.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Present: Reaping the Whirlwind

What a day in antipresidentland.  Eric Levitz:

 Rex Tillerson was one of the worst secretaries of State in American history – and his firing might be the worst development of the Trump presidency thus far.

Levitz's analysis is that the firing of Tillerson  presages a final withdrawal from the Iran nuclear deal (Tillerson supported it), and throwing the North Korea situation into chaos.  Tillerson is replaced by Pompeo, an anti-Muslim bigot.

Pompeo comes directly from heading the CIA, and is replaced there by the architect of a notorious torture camp in Thailand.

Jonathan Chait notes that Tillerson was fired after he agreed with the UK's PM that Russia is responsible for unleashing a nerve agent in a London restaurant, resulting in murder.

Undersecretary of State Goldstein said Tillerson had been blindsided by the firing, contrary to the White House account.  He was promptly fired as well.

Another aide gone: CNN:President Donald Trump's longtime personal aide John McEntee was fired because he is currently under investigation by the Department of Homeland Security for serious financial crimes, a source familiar with his firing told CNN.  Later in the day, McEntee got a job with the reelect the antipresident campaign.

The antipresident was in California on Tuesday to tour scattered mockups of his fake wall.  Meanwhile the CA spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement resigned, because Jeff Sessions and his Justice Dept. were forcing him to lie.

The firing of Tillerson soaks up the headlines, on a day when Republicans anticipate the possibility--perhaps the likelihood--of losing a high profile congressional special election in western Pennsylvania.

Meanwhile, the real reason for this post: On Slate, here is the best summary I've read for what the law says about a campaign consorting with a foreign power in an election, and specifically the criminal charges members of the antipresident's team--and the antipresident himself--may face.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Time Machine.1: Launch Point

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is equivalent to magic."
Arthur C. Clarke

H.G. Wells has become so identified with The Time Machine that several times he has been portrayed not only as the story’s author, but as the machine’s inventor, and a time traveler himself.

Malcolm McDowell as H.G. Wells, time traveller
in Time After Time
Though in the novel the time machine’s inventor is referred to only as “the Traveller,” he is identified as H. George Wells in the first Hollywood movie adaptation of The Time Machine in 1960.

Going a step further, the 1979 Nicholas Meyer film Time After Time fully portrayed H.G. Wells as the inventor of the time machine and a time traveler to 1970s San Francisco.

Lois and Clark
This identification seemed to have achieved the status of a pop culture stereotype by the 1990s when several episodes of the TV series Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman featured a time-traveling H.G.Wells, who shows up in Metropolis.

Rod Taylor (seated, second from left) as Wells in 1960 George
Pal production of The Time Machine
Even for those who don’t go that far, the novel seems to have established an image of Wells as a comfortably wealthy middle-aged gentleman of the Victorian era, wearing fine suits and attended by servants in his great London house as he entertains important men of the day: in other words, in the clothes and context of the protagonist of The Time Machine.

Wells with his wife Jane on their latest technology,
the tandem bicycle in the 1890s
The reality was different. Though eventually his writing would earn him a similar status, at the time he was working on The Time Machine, the actual H.G. Wells was in his late twenties, short of money and living in a series of rented rooms.

 One hot August night he wrote at a parlor table with the window wide open for air. Moths attracted by the paraffin lamp flew through it and flopped around him, while outside a loud voice belonging to his landlady complained about him and his late hours (and all the expensive lamp oil he was using), ostensibly to a neighbor.

Wells was still an outsider. But his years in London, his work as a journalist, his reading and his acute curiosity made him an observant one. And there was much to observe.

For in many visible ways, London in the 1890s was the fulcrum of the future. It was the largest city in the world, and the center of world finance, industry, trade and transportation. With new telegraph cables under the sea, it was a global communication center. The British empire was long-lived, far-flung and vast, and as its capital, London was at the living center of history.

It was also an intellectual crossroads, a cauldron of knowledge, debate, literature and theatre, with a mix of new journals featuring outspoken opinions and speculations. It was a city of science, where theories were announced, ambitious expeditions and explorations were launched and celebrated, and where the latest technologies were on display.

1890s London street depicted in 1980s/90s Granada TV series
of Sherlock Holmes stories starring Jeremy Brett
The London that Wells knew was also in a period of transformation, when elegant but fading elements of the past coexisted with the forerunners of the future.  This was still the London of Sherlock Holmes, of Victorian ladies and gentlemen in horse-drawn carriages clattering through gas-lit streets. But some homes had electricity. Telegraph wires sang through the sky.

London traffic had resulted in the first urban underground railroad system in the world. Cholera epidemics earlier in the century eventually led to a rudimentary sewage system. But as in Dickens’ day there were still vast slums. An unromantic toxic fog hung over the city, produced by smoky factories more than by moody nature.

Even when the new machines were invented aboard, they quickly came to London. By 1895, Henry Ford had produced his first car and Diesel patented his engine; the Lumieres invented the cinematograph and motion picture camera, Edison the phonograph disc and Marconi the radio.  Machines could do magic.

Meanwhile, several seemingly unrelated new inventions, such as the electric elevator, the adding machine, cash register, the typewriter and the automatic telephone switchboard were combining with mass-produced steel to herald a new city dominated by high rise office buildings.

Before the decade ended, scientists would announce the discovery of the principles of rocket propulsion, the existence of radioactivity, radium and the electron, and Max Planck proposed his theory of the quantum. The science of the 20th century was underway.

1894 Art Nouveau cover of a publication
that often featured the work of H.G. Wells
"The relationship between 'imagination' and 'action' and between 'fantasy' and 'reality' were becoming more complex in the 1890s," wrote historian Asa Briggs, "as the religious props which had sustained traditional societies began to be knocked down and as the scale of economic enterprise was enhanced."

The new woman, the new journalism, art nouveau--to be new was everything and not to be new, wrote a critic in 1892, "is to be nothing."  Yet expansion and upheaval in the industrial age broke the continuity of many lives and communities, and cast the lives of everyone into new shapes--while destroying more than a few. Sons and daughters could no longer do exactly what their parents had done. They did not even inherit the same community, or the same world. Their present was very different from the past, and it seemed inevitable that the future would be a different world again.

"The Scream" (1893) by Edvard Munch is often cited as
an expression of 1890s anxieties 
While rapid change and powerful new technology energized the age, it also created a "curious confusion," in England and across Europe, as one writer observed in 1895, "a compound of feverish restlessness and blunted discouragement, of fearful presage and hang dog renunciation," and even a sense of "imminent perdition and extinction…[that]mankind, with all its institutions and creations, is perishing in the midst of a dying world."

And then there were other late 19th century inventions: nitroglycerin, dynamite, the machine gun, and barbed wire.

The present was moving very fast, but in what direction? So many of the ongoing tumultuous debates of the nineteenth century---in universities and in Parliament, in the burgeoning journals and newspapers that enacted a swiftly expressed public dialogue in this vibrant city---were focused on the essential question of what all this meant.

Evolution and other ideas in contention would have consequences for shaping the years to come. It was a debate for the soul of the future.

That debate was prominent even in the popular press for all of H.G. Wells’ conscious life, and was now reaching a climax in the 1890s, with a new century in sight. It involved theological doctrine and philosophical speculation, and the findings of the still very young social sciences. But most of all it involved the findings and theories of the physical sciences.

Since technology was the most visible agent of change, and since science supported it with ever-increasing knowledge that experience seemed to prove true (if by no other evidence than the fact that these wondrous machines actually worked), the most credible explanations were becoming those based at least partly on science.

Into this world came The Time Machine.

To be continued... For previous posts in this series, click on the "Soul of the Future" label below.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Present: Hoping for Hope

When Michelle Obama's portrait was unveiled at the National Gallery last month (along with President Obama's), she suggested that girls of color "will see an image of someone who looks like them hanging on the walls of this great American institution. ... And I know the kind of impact that will have on their lives because I was one of those girls."

Another one of those girls was 2 year old Parker Curry.  When a passing photographer snapped a picture of her transfixed before the portrait (her mother kept asking her to turn around for her own photo but she was rapt) and posted it, it went viral and First Lady Michelle saw it.  That led to a visit to the girl in her Washington home, and a dance.

The portrait itself, by the way, led to this interesting essay/analysis in the New Yorker, which I'm glad I found the opportunity to point out.

Then on Friday several online outlets ran stories of a rumor that both Obamas are talking with Netflik about producing programs for that TV streaming network.  Apparently the New York Times started it all, quoting a source saying that the content might focus on "inspirational stories."  The New York coverage ends with the exhortation "Cross your fingers for Hope TV, everyone." Amen.


And there was even a little hope in the news this past week.  The Parkland students got something like a win when the Florida legislature passed and its NRA-beholden governor signed a law that...well, doesn't do a lot, but does something in the gun control area.  Even if the bad stuff outweighs the good in practice, it is significant for doing anything at all.  It's the first defeat of the aggressive absolutism of the NRA, which of course is suing to stop it.

Meanwhile, first evidence shows that the new tax cut law is (1)causing chaos because it's so badly written and (2) having precisely the effect that Democratic opponents said it would: instead of  corporations using the money for raises and more hiring they are buying back their own stock to further enrich themselves.  So no surprise that February numbers show wages going down.

But polling evidence suggests that Republicans are not getting any political benefit from the tiny short-term bump in paychecks the law mandated.  After a brief bump in the polls, the law is now less popular than before it was passed--and it was not very popular then.

Thursday, March 08, 2018

Present Past: Aroma of A Memory

It's often difficult to know just what provokes a memory.  A smell can, but it's complicated, and even involves something that looks like a paradox.

In his chapter on the subject in Why Life Speeds Up As You Get Older, Dowe Draaisma notices a complication, which he elegantly frames with an observation about the famous petite madeleines scene in Proust.  Every psychological treatise on smell and memory inevitably refers to it, and like good English majors, they repeat what they've heard about it (probably from other treatises on smell and memory) and they generally get it wrong.

"The depiction is often at umpteenth hand, three lines long at most and whittled away until almost unrecognizable: the narrator drinks a cup of tea, dunks a piece of cake in it, and suddenly the smell takes him back to his youth in Combray."

The problem is the actual scene as Proust writes it covers four pages and goes through a long process between the smell and the memory.  The smell affects him but he doesn't know why.  Only with effort does he then associate it with the general memory of his childhood.  It's a key to many memories of that time and place.

A smell can ignite a memory pretty much right away, and it can be powerful.  That's happened to me.  But it also--and probably more often--just causes a slight change in mood, the research suggests.  That may lead to a memory, but only with some work at concentrating, sorting, rooting around--as Proust did.

Smell has several unique features compared to other human senses.  Of course, it's pretty weak in humans, compared to other animals and to other senses.  Taste is even more specific, and much of what we think of as taste is actually (or mostly) smell.

And smell has a unique pathway to the brain, a direct route to centers of emotion and memory.  But shouldn't that make remembering smells more likely?  Not necessarily, for autobiographical memory is strongly linked to speech, and since smells bypass speech centers, we may have no access to those memories.

But when an aroma does evokes a memory it can be very powerful.  Accounts by writers suggest these would more likely be smells that were a fairly regular part of life in the past but are not frequent in the present, like the smell of hay that immediately takes a city dweller back to childhood on the farm.

Memories--not usually of specific events but of a period or place--sparked by smells are usually positive, Dr. D. writes, occasionally negative but almost never neutral.  It's that direct line to the limbic system, where emotions reside.  And the sight of hay or sawdust or wool tweed is not enough to trigger the sensation.  It has to be the smell.

Lab experiments trying to verify smells evoking memories have generally failed, because you can't get enough smells into the laboratory, and because it may take time before the smell and memory are connected.  Another reason they fail apparently is because experimenters use the same undergraduate age test subjects as many if not most of these studies do, and then they announce findings as if they necessarily apply to all ages, cultures, etc. in all conditions.

But one lab study that tested subjects of various ages found that people over 70 were much more likely to have memories elicited by actual smells than the names of smells.  The apparent paradox is that the sense of smell declines much more with age than other senses.  70 year olds typically have a small fraction of the ability to smell as they did as children.

But that doesn't undercut the power of particular smells; it may enhance it.  For older subjects, smells were associated mostly with memories formed when they were age 6 or younger.  It's that direct connection again.  And this effect is enhanced by another unique property of the smell sense.

Our active memory can hold only so much--so many thoughts, associations, sights, sounds, etc.  So newer sights tend to block the memory of older ones, which is true of the other senses--except smell.  New smells don't block old smells.  So another reason that, if a smell does provoke a memory, it's a powerful connection.

Dr. D. doesn't deal with a phenomenon I've noticed: certain smells can evoke a powerful sense of "being there" in the memory, and it can happen each time for that smell.  But if the smell isn't repeated, I forget the association.  I can remember only a few recent smells that have taken me back, but I know there have been others.  I just don't remember them.

Obviously an aroma you haven't smelled in awhile is more likely to bring back an emotion-laded memory.  But I've noticed that it's more than a simple correspondence, especially for smells more regularly encountered.  For example, concrete blocks and bricks.  Only sometimes in the presence of concrete and bricks do I catch the aroma that takes me back to houses under construction in my neighborhood when I was a kid (positive.) Or sites where I later worked as a summer job, mostly picking up and stacking in the hot sun (negative.)

Dr. D. also doesn't deal with self-reported associations.  For that I go back to something I clipped out of Harper's Magazine (I believe) several decades ago.  I can't find the actual clipping, but I wrote down the findings.  It was a survey done in a Chicago shopping mall.  A social scientist asked people "What odors cause you to be nostalgic?"  What was most interesting about the findings--and from a certain point of view, sad-- was how they broke down in terms of when people who had them were born.

Among the smells people born in the 1960s and 1970s cited were: Play-Doh, Chlorine, crayons, Downy fabric softener, tuna casseole, tacos, SweeTarts, Coca Puffs, Scented Magic Markers, Windex, hairspray, disinfectant, motor oil, airplane fuel, plastic and smoke.

Among the smells those born in the 1920s, 30s and 40s cited were: lilies, manure, violets, ocean air, pine, hot chocolate, Cracker Jack, baking bread, blueberries, honeysuckle, burning leaves, clover, hay, meadows, tweed, meat balls, cut grass, soap, fresh air.


Tuesday, March 06, 2018

Present: A Quotation.4

“In journalism just one fact that is false prejudices the entire work. In contrast, in fiction one single fact that is true gives legitimacy to the entire work. That’s the only difference, and it lies in the commitment of the writer. A novelist can do anything he wants so long as he makes people believe in it.”

Gabriel Garcia Marquez
born 91 years ago today
(A Vox piece has this quote)

Present: Strangelove on Steroids

These days the news is like Doctor Strangelove on steroids. Nothing is outrageously and cartoonishly awful enough that it can't be topped within the hour. Some folks have recently been sharing their countermeasures: Andrew Sullivan is reading W.H. Auden, somebody else looks to a forgiving character in Angels in America. Me, these days I'm happily ensconced in the 19th century.

Otherwise: We got through the Bush years with The West Wing.  Now in our household we're getting through this with Madame Secretary, the CBS series now in its fourth season, though we are just finishing the first.  Yes, intelligent public servants qualify as escapism.

Although it would be nice for a major TV character not to be CIA, ex-CIA, NSA etc.  I'll never forgive the producers of Sherlock for turning Watson's wife Mary into an international hit man.

Back for a moment to Strangelove on Steroids, the unavoidable series, as last week the antipresident went into Homemade Hitler mode by praising the president of China for declaring himself emperor, and suggesting maybe he'd like to try it himself.  Not that he hasn't expressed his envy of successfully authoritarian leaders before.  Somehow this isn't even as shocking as the entire US government remaining silent when China made this declaration.

The Homemade Hitler vibes have been zinging through the zeitgeist since then.  Two columns in Monday's Washington Post alone referred to it "Fortunately, Trump doesn't have what it takes to be a dictator" by Michael Gerson, and President Trump is blessedly weak by Dana Milbank  (though Eugene Robinson warns "The Trump presidency could cost the nation more than we realize," and Richard Cohen sticks with the antipresident theme: "Trump disrespects the presidency.  So I don't respect him.")


I've made one observation about the antipresident and his capability to achieve HH status that is somewhat close to cheering: he keeps making enemies. That's getting difficult in that he has few friends and allies, and almost no one who is neutral, so his pool of non-enemies to convert into enemies is fairly small. But he is winning at this.  Now he's taking on his own congressional leaders on raising tariffs, and threatening a trade war likely to result in major inflation.

I now realize that you have to be about as old as me to have experienced high inflation as an adult.  It happened in the 1970s, which contrary to myth was not all Saturday Night Fever.  Gas shortages, two energy crises, hostages in Iran, and double digit inflation--meaning that prices were going up at an annual rate of 18% or so.

Now we're about to knowingly do this to ourselves.  Not only does it cause a lot of anxiety and suffering for the nonrich, it has a much bigger psychological impact on the rich and everybody else than any mere downturn does, not even the Great Recession.  I doubt that it's been studied enough, but it seems to me to be the key to the "greed is good" 80s.  With inflation, greed is a survival skill.  That the inflation was largely over doesn't pertain: it's the psychology that got rooted.

The fears instilled by inflation may also be seen as being underneath the lurch to the right of the 1980s, which has only gotten worse.  Not because of anything real (though there's plenty of real disaster in it), but because of fear and simple answers to quell that fear.  That fear is also likely why nobody seems to remember that aspect of the 70s.  Down the old denial memory hole!

 I did not have a decent understanding of the opiod epidemic until I read this article by Andrew Sullivan.  The facts he presents alone are stunning.  Applying his experience in the AIDS epidemic is particularly revealing.

A local note: listening to my favorite radio station ("The Lounge") I heard my first commercial since legalization for a purveyor of cannabis . It never mentions the word "cannabis" which is now the official term, or any of its historical terms either.  It's referred to simply as "The Product."  As in "please use The Product responsibly."  

Sunday, March 04, 2018

Past Future: Evolution of the Future

“I move from a backyard to Cosmopolis…"
H.G. Wells

In the fall of 1884, 18-year-old Bertie Wells took the short train ride from Bromley to London, and became an alien invading another world.

One morning he walked across Kensington Gardens to an imposing building of red brick and creamy terra cotta, with its display of figures depicting the seven ages of man. He signed his name inside its entrance, crossed the marble mosaic floors, bypassed the wide central stairway and took the lift up to the biological laboratories on the fourth and top floor. It was, he wrote in his autobiography, “one of the great days of my life.”

Normal School of Science 1880s
It was his first day as a student at the Normal School of Science. The building was part of an impressive complex that included the Albert Hall and the magnificent new Natural History Museum. There were domes and arcades, spires and turrets all around it.  It was a deliberate and still unfinished cluster of buildings housing major institutions of the arts and sciences, constructed on what had recently been farmland.

The Great Exhibition of 1851 had been held nearby. Housed in the Crystal Palace, the largest enclosure of glass supported by cast iron ever built to that time, it dazzled visitors (including Charles Darwin and Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll and Charlotte Bronte) with the latest technology. The Exhibition was very popular and profitable, with those profits devoted to building some of these South Kensington structures, including the Normal School. This area was now London’s new center of knowledge, especially in the sciences.

Natural History Museum in South Kensington today. A ceremony
was held here when Huxley retired from teaching.
On the top floor Wells found large laboratories equipped with scientific instruments. He could look down over the balcony onto the glass dome of the lecture theatre below. But it would be the labs, and especially a smaller lecture theatre adjacent to the labs that would become his most important focus. There, surrounded by black shelves of mammalian skeletons and skulls, Thomas Henry Huxley would talk.

T.H. Huxley was the Dean of the Normal School of Science, which he had advocated and created. For decades he had been the country’s chief advocate for science. “...he made a profession of science,” wrote his biographer Adrian Desmond. “With him the ‘scientist’ was born.”

T.H. Huxley
He was also a persistent advocate for education in the sciences at all levels, and this time not just for the ruling classes. In 1871 he fused together several separate schools to provide a broad science education. A decade later he gave it an official name, the Normal School of Science, an unsuccessful attempt to suggest the √©lan of the French Ecole Normale. Shortly after Wells’ time it was renamed the Royal College of Science.

Wells was assigned to Huxley’s basic biology course. “Here were microscopes, dissections, models, diagrams close to the objects they elucidated, specimens, museums, ready answers to questions, explanations discussions,” Wells remembered. “Here I was under the shadow of Huxley, the acutest observer, the ablest generalizer, the great teacher, the most lucid and valiant of controversialists... The year I spent in Huxley’s class, was beyond all question, the most educational year of my life.”

Huxley was one of the most famous men in England, and he inspired awe in his students, including Wells, who was told that beyond a curtain at the back of the auditorium, Charles Darwin himself had sometimes waited, listening to Huxley lecture.

In later life, Wells still wrote of Huxley and Darwin as figures representing his own ideals. “These two were very great men. They thought boldly, carefully and simply, they spoke and wrote fearlessly and plainly, they lived modestly and decently; they were mighty intellectual liberators.”

Wells and his fellow students sought out and read Huxley’s books and articles. Partly due to the structure of the course, partly because Huxley was ill much of that year, others carried out the classroom teaching and the demonstrations. Wells himself never had so much as a conversation with Huxley. He recalled a single morning when they exchanged greetings.

But Huxley gave the guiding lectures. There’s a photograph of Wells’ mimicking Huxley’s habit of draping his arm around the upright skeleton of a gorilla as he talked. Those lectures were the center of the transformation Wells experienced that year. He felt an “extraordinary mental enlargement as my mind passed from the printed sciences within book covers to these intimate real things and then radiated outward to a realization that the synthesis of the sciences composed a vital interpretation of the world."

This synthesis was implicit in the program Huxley had devised for the Normal School. In 1834 British philosopher William Whewell had argued that
the study of the material world was being fragmented, and practitioners of specific sciences didn’t know enough about how their findings related to other sciences. He proposed a new word to describe students of collective scientific knowledge. In an analogy to artists, he wanted to call them “scientists.”

Huxley would not have called his students that—he hated the name. (So did others. It didn’t become fully accepted until World War II, and by then it meant something more general.) But by Whewell’s definition, Wells was being educated as one of the first scientists.

Wells absorbed Huxley’s belief that science was systematic common sense—“common sense at its best,” as Huxley said, “that is, rigidly accurate in observation, and merciless to fallacy in logic.” It was an attitude, a procedure, a process.

Wells later described Huxley's course as "a vivid sustained attempt to see life clearly and to see it whole, to see into it, to see its interconnections, to find out, so far as terms were available, what it is, where it came from, what it was doing, and where it was going."

Beyond his advocacy of science, his years as an educator and his own scientific accomplishments (mostly in comparative anatomy), Huxley remains historically significant for his role in securing the legitimacy of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, particularly when it was first proposed.

What Wells learned from Huxley, particularly about Darwinian evolution, informed his thinking and his imagining for his long and varied career. Huxley’s interpretation of Darwinian evolution became the single most important and fruitful idea of Wells’ professional life, and the guiding influence on his vision of the future.

In turn, through the ways that Wells developed and expressed this core idea, it has become what we accept as the determining factor of “the future.” The future is a consequence of how humanity responds to the challenges of the present. The future evolves.

Darwin’s theory had its own history, much of it written in Huxley’s lifetime, and nearly all of it related to the age of the machine. It started with geology, and the discovery of deep time.

William Smith was a late 18th century English surveyor who took on two typical jobs of his profession in the industrial age: he did an underground survey for a coal mine, and another for a proposed canal that would link the coalfields to another canal.

The industrial age required a great deal of digging. Smith started noticing the ribbons of different colors and composition at different depths, revealed by cutting into the earth. He guessed they might be continuous, not just in one site but in many, and he made observations elsewhere that tended to confirm this. He had discovered the basic geological feature of strata.

“Because of his hands-on experience as a canal and mine surveyor,” writes Keith Thomson in Before Darwin, “Smith was able to tease apart the structure of the earth in ways that no theorist could.”

Smith's geological map of England
Others involved in the study of mining and minerals in Italy and Germany had also noticed the strata. Smith soon became consumed with the study of strata and the fossils found within them. By the early 19th century he had mapped the strata across England. He published a book supporting his theory that each level could be identified according to the particular fossils found in them.

This was an early step in the unassuming science of geology that in a few short decades would culminate in Darwin’s theory. It also illustrates the less obvious relationship that 19th century science had with industry.

With its need for machines, metals, energy sources and transportation, that industry fostered advances in physics and chemistry seems logical. But it also played a role in expanding knowledge in geology and the life sciences. All of these in turn transformed knowledge about the universe and time, and the history of the planet.

Before and even during the industrial age, there was no actual profession of scientist, or geologist or physicist (another word Whewell coined.) There were “natural philosophers” in the major universities, but most science was conducted by individuals with the income and leisure to devote to their researches. During the industrial age, certain individuals of lesser means went beyond their jobs to make immense scientific discoveries.

So for example, in puzzling out why the major theories on conservation of energy should have emerged more or less simultaneously from a number of individuals in different countries, historian of science Thomas Kuhn found that most of them were either trained as engineers or were working on the development of new engines when they made their contributions.

England’s leading energy theorist, Lord Kelvin, was an engineer who also worked with industry to research specific technologies. A number of other discoveries, including the speed of light, were eventual results of attempts to solve practical problems for industry, such as the need for better and more efficient machines and sources of energy.

Then there were enthusiasts like William Smith, who in trying to accumulate knowledge useful to their jobs, joined up in a chain of observations and theories that changed how we view the past.

Portrait of Lyle 1840
Such pioneer studies by Smith, Scotsman James Hutton and others caught the attention of another Scotsman, Charles Lyell, as he studied law at Oxford. While beginning his law practice, Lyell also became fascinated by new fossil finds and their apparent mysteries, such as fossils of freshwater animals found below a layer of sea-bottom sediment.

Lyle gave up the law and traveled through France and Sicily for his own systematic investigations. His detailed studies established that the types of fossils in each strata of the earth were relatively uniform, and that the lower strata contained the fossils of extinct life-forms. The deeper you dug, the more primitive those life-forms tended to be.

In June of 1830, Lyell published the first of his three volume work, Principles of Geology, which not only established geology as a science, but proved case by case (for Lyell put his original training in the law to good use) that in order for the world to be as it is, it must be many times older than was officially believed. Fossils of the same type appeared in strata separated by millions of years of volcanic activity.

For the next decade or so, Louis Agassiz's observations of glaciers and other phenomena in Europe and America, and the work of other geologists continued to add evidence supporting Lyell's interpretations. The earth was much, much older than anyone had previously believed it to be.

young Darwin
Charles Darwin read Lyell's first volume before he left on his famous voyage to South America on the Beagle in 1831, when he conducted the field research that provided his evidence for evolution. He carried it with him and thought of it as he gazed at the Andes.

In the second volume, which Darwin received while in South America, Lyell concluded that the earth itself had evolved. When Darwin returned with his plant and animal specimens and painstakingly worked out the details of his theory of biological evolution, he and Lyell exchanged ideas and theories, and became friends.

But Lyell had already given Darwin the one element he most needed to formulate his theory: time. The long ages of what we now call geological time were more than enough to permit the slow play of accident and incident, and the eventual effects of many momentary dramas of life and death, of survival and generation, of adaptation and change, implied by Darwin's theory of the sculpting of life by environmental forces and how life-forms adapted to them.

Lyell’s third volume even suggested that there had been evolution in life forms. The general notion of evolution had been in the air for several generations—in fact, evolution was in a way the Darwin family business. Charles’ grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, had been a principal proponent of the idea.

After returning from his voyage, Darwin poured over his specimens and began working out his theory of natural selection.  He essentially had it by 1838.  But it would be nearly 20 years before he published it.

When Darwin first conceived of his theory, T.H. Huxley was 13. Huxley was born in 1825, in only slightly better circumstances than H.G. Wells would be, above a butcher’s shop in a small village outside London. His father, an educated member of the middle class, was a teacher down on his luck. The son would have to make his own way in the world.

At 15, young Huxley was an apothecary’s apprentice in a dockside slum during a time of high unemployment. He saw the suffering of mothers and children who not only could not buy his medicines, they couldn’t afford food. This experience marked him for life.

Huxley was a poorly paid naturalist for the Royal Navy when he met the independently wealthy Lyell. A few years later as an up and coming man of science in London, he met the independently wealthy Charles Darwin, who suggested he review his latest paper.

Darwin had delayed announcing his theory in part because of the furor he knew it would cause. To assert that humans weren’t specially created but were descended from earlier animals was contrary to church doctrine, at a time when there was little or no separation of church and state in England, and the church leaders were often members of the hereditary ruling class.

But his hand was forced by a former railroad surveyor who was so drawn to the flowers and insects along the routes he was mapping that he gave up his quiet Welsh countryside to become a naturalist along the Amazon.

He was Alfred Russel Wallace. Literally in a fever, he suddenly crystallized his own theory of natural selection and sent his paper to a dumbfounded Darwin, hoping that Darwin might show it to Lyell if he didn’t think it was crazy.

Wallace used an industrial age metaphor to explain his idea of natural selection. It was a natural feedback system, like the self-correcting centrifugal governor of the steam engine.

This devastating letter prompted Darwin to immediately publish his theory, in a joint paper with Wallace. Darwin finally finished his book illustrating it, On the Origin of Species, in 1859. He remained sequestered on his estate, suffering from a series of debilitating illnesses. He relied on others to represent his views in the inevitable public debate.

His most effective champion was T. H. Huxley, by then a figure of some renown. Huxley, writes biographer Desmond, “had a huge, multi-talented intellect and seem to run ten lives simultaneously.” He was conducting his own scientific researches, particularly as more and more fossil animals were coming to him, uncovered in the growing number of new coal mines across England.  He eventually theorized that birds had evolved from some warm-blooded dinosaurs, an insight not generally accepted until well into the 20th century.

Huxley 1857
But Huxley’s chief fame came as “Darwin’s bulldog.” His celebrated confrontation with an aristocratic bishop of the time however was only part of his defense of Darwinian evolution. In addition to essays and reviews in scientific journals and the popular press, he applied his clarity of expression to a series of talks that were wildly popular with working class audiences.

In his lectures to workers, as in his lectures to students, Huxley stuck to science.  But the political implications of evolution were clear. Evolution itself means change over time, whatever causes that change.  It meant things were not the same forever in the natural world--some species died out, others appeared.  Perhaps change was possible in the order of things in human civilization, too. The future might be different.  This is one way that evolution was revolutionary.

Darwin proposed natural selection as the major mechanism of evolutionary change. Features of a particular environment sustain life-forms: the sources of nourishment, the climate, the predators etc. When the environment changes in crucial ways, these life forms must adjust and adapt, or die out.

Major adaptations over generations might be a different color to fool predators, a different beak to extract new kinds of seeds, or a new ability like flying or communicating. The process of establishing such adaptations begins with the right random mutation in one or some organisms that allow them to flourish in the new conditions. If this adaptation is passed on to their descendants, they may become fixed and essential characteristics.

Sometimes the adaptation leads to such large changes that a new species evolves. And they in turn become a new factor in the environment, to which other life-forms must adapt. It is not the only engine of change, Darwin cautioned, but the chief one.

The enormous span of time necessary for this process wasn’t the only mind-boggling challenge to orthodox belief, or even conventional modes of thinking. The establishment clergy saw that the process needed no divine intervention or even a guiding intelligence. Others (including for awhile, Huxley himself) resisted the implication that there was no final purpose, and that it cast nature as a war of all against all, all of the time.

Finally, there was a repugnance to the assertion that humans were descendants of some grubby, ugly, grunting ape species.

 The image of the ape in the mid 19th century was relatively new. Londoners had only been able to see ape species (mostly from Asia) at the Zoological Gardens since 1847. The first live African gorilla wasn’t seen in England until 1855, and even then it wasn’t recognized as a gorilla until it was dead. Terrifying stories and images regarding apes and gorillas, often with little basis in reality, had filled this void.

Yet primate fossils that Huxley studied clearly showed the relationship, bone by bone. It was all in the anatomy—that primates and the races of humanity were not very different.

The classic caricature of Darwin as ape/man
It was the celebrated insult by Bishop Wilberforce during their public debate—taunting Huxley by asking him if an ape was his grandfather or grandmother—that remains the defining moment of Huxley’s fame. Huxley replied that if he had to chose whether to have an ape as a grandfather or a wealthy and powerful man who injects “ridicule into a grave scientific discussion, I unhesitatingly affirm my preference for the ape.”

Over the next decades, there were complex political, class and racial undercurrents and issues in the fierce controversies over Darwin’ theory, particularly once the United States Civil War revived the debate over African slaves. Despite Darwin’s careful, dispassionate and even tedious writings, the idea of natural selection, which in part arose from ideas outside biological science, was fraught and emotional—as well over a century later, in some quarters it still is. In his time, Huxley was its most wily and eloquent defender, especially as it pertained to the integrity of science.

In his prime, Huxley was a tall, charismatic figure with black hair and fiery black eyes. By the time he stood in the same room as the young H.G. Wells, he was stocky and sallow, his eyes dimmed to brown, and his hair silver. He was so ill that he only made it through that year with the help of a drug another late 19th century figure would make famous (although a fictional one): cocaine.

First Royal College of Science reunion dinner, chaired by
H.G. Wells in 1908
Huxley would have at least one more significant moment, but Wells’ class at the Normal School would be the end of his 30 years in education. He was Wells’ first teacher, and Wells was one of his last students.

Arguably Wells became the most important. Huxley’s interpretation of Darwin would motivate and guide much of Wells’ influential work over the next half century, including his views on the urgency of the present. He would first take that version of Darwin’s theory about the deep past, and apply it to the deep future.

But Wells had a twisting road ahead before he got that far. His other science teachers were much less inspiring than Huxley, and he got swept up in the Debating Society, and in the school magazine he helped to start.

 Between excited explorations of London, including observing discussions in the homes of prominent socialists, he fell into reveries as he poured over Carlyle, Blake, Shakespeare, Shelley, the Buddha and Confucius in the Art Library and other adjacent institutions in the South Kensington complex.

His lethargy may also have resulted from not enough to eat.  He was living on a weekly stipend that was part of his scholarship, but he often ran short and had to skip meals.

In the end he failed to graduate with his class. He soon got enough of a degree to teach science, but at his first school he got badly injured and seriously ill. At first his mystery illness looked terminal, and he had months to contemplate time and the precariousness of life.

He convalesced at Up Park, where again he raided its library, but with new intent. “I was reading... poetry and imaginative work with an attention to language and style that I had never given these aspects of literature before.”

Back in London another teaching position followed (A.A. Milne, author of Winnie-the-Pooh, was one of his pupils) and other jobs in education (co-authoring textbooks, working for a correspondence school.) These all ended with another near-fatal fit of illness. Such work seemed to be killing him. His tentative attempts to write for publication now seemed his only alternative. He had to become a writer, but how?

He knew it should be possible to make a living at it. After all, there were many new magazines and newspapers to respond to the demands of a growing literate public.

And there was great public interest in science, his field of expertise. Though the amateur was fading from science, the tradition was still strong, and London readers were keenly following the scientific news of the day, from the latest inventions to the reports on expeditions to previously unexplored reaches of the globe.

Science was even fashionable. During the height of geological discoveries by Lyle and others, weekend rock hunting and fossil finding excursions were popular entertainment. Fashionable Londoners flocked to the zoological gardens, to gawk at the animals from around the world. They nicknamed it “the zoo,” as in the lyrics of a popular song by music hall performer The Great Vance: “The OK thing to do on Sunday afternoon is to toddle in the zoo!”

Wells struggled for awhile, but then he got a tip from a book by J.M. Barrie, creator of Peter Pan. Barrie advised writers for the new journals to anchor their articles in the details of real life, and use the ordinary and familiar to spark their musings.

Liberating moments are highly individual to each writer, and this fairly pedestrian advice was the eccentric key that opened the floodgates. Science, art, experience, style—everything coalesced in this moment.

Wells circa 1891
Wells suddenly became a prolific and popular writer for London journals. At first he was a latter day Boz, the Dickens persona who wittily chronicled London life, often anonymously, and sometimes—as Dickens had done—in the guise of a comic character.

Thanks to the timely rise of the ambitious and generous Pall Mall Gazette, he also became a book critic who won a friend in Joseph Conrad with a sensitive review, and a drama critic who won a friend in Henry James for the same reason. He found himself walking home with fellow reviewer George Bernard Shaw from comedies by Oscar Wilde—without having met him, Wilde had furthered Wells career with a compliment on an early article to an important editor.

But for a longer, more ambitious work, Wells could not yet turn to his own life. He hadn’t yet been out of England, and his experience in a few places in his own country was very limited. He had to explore more imagined worlds.

Wells returned to an idea he sensed was golden. As a college debater he had explored the concept of time as a fourth dimension, equal to the dimensions of space. Would it be possible to travel through time, just as you can travel through space?

 He tried to write a story about it for his school magazine, but he couldn’t sustain it. Again he tried, for the National Observer, but when the publication changed hands the last installments were mercifully cancelled.

William Henley had commissioned the Observer attempt but agreed it wasn’t working. Now editor of the New Review, he encouraged Wells to try it again, but to make it more of a believable story. Could Wells invent a time-traveling character that readers identify with—someone they would want to accompany on this adventure?

Again, it was a key that unlocked the floodgates. Wells wrote and rewrote, with Henley urging him on. “It is so full of invention & the invention is so wonderful,” Henley enthused. “It must certainly make your reputation.”

First edition cover
It did more than that. In The Time Machine, Wells made the future as we know it. In its longest and most famous section, set in a far future, the novel dramatizes consequences of an aspect of the nineteenth century (and our time as well) as governed by T.H. Huxley’s interpretation of Darwinian evolution.

Almost every story of the future since has made this same assumption: the future is an effect of prior happenings, sometimes of plans and progress, but more often, a future of unintended consequences.

Such stories since have seldom been accomplished with such subtlety and rigor as this first one in modern narrative. It remains a revelation of the process that gets us to a future.

Darwin’s Origin of Species had been published only 25 years before Wells studied in Huxley’s class. Darwin himself had been dead for just two years. The debate on what Darwin meant, and its significance was still going on. Wells applied it all to the future, particularly what he had learned as a consequence of that most educational year of his life.

The skeleton of his story is Huxley’s version of how change happens from the past to the present. Wells uses it to tell us how change could happen from the present to the future, and how human consciousness could affect that future.

Next we explore that future in several (hopefully shorter) posts on The Time Machine.

to be continued.  To access earlier posts in this series, click on the "Soul of the Future" label below.